Tag Archives: Chicago

This story begins in Acapulco, but it doesn’t end in Yellowknife

The powerful earthquake that shook Acapulco and Mexico City a week ago made me worry about the damage that it might inflict on those two cities.  At the same time, it revived memories of the many trips I’ve made to Mexico during the past five decades.

My first trip, in February 1970, stands out from all the rest for a bunch of reasons.  It was, notably, my first encounter with the beautiful country of Mexico.

It also represented a tremendous leap from bitter-cold Chicago to a sunny and flower-filled part of the world I couldn’t wait to visit…as well as a total departure from months of hard work at my job.

Until the day I left Chicago for Acapulco–Saturday, February 21–I’d been largely preoccupied with my work as co-counsel in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the restrictive Illinois abortion law.  We filed our lawsuit on Friday the 20th, and I took off for Mexico feeling a great sense of relief as well as anticipation.

Some background:  My first job after finishing law school was law clerk for a U.S. district court judge, Julius J. Hoffman.  [I’ve described my two-year clerkship in a series of blog posts beginning in November 2020.  Please see the first post in the series at https://susanjustwrites.com/2020/11/13/hangin-with-judge-hoffman/%5D  After leaving Hoffman, I assumed a new role that validated why I’d gone to law school in the first place:  a Reggie Fellowship, assigned to work at my chosen office, the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Legal Aid Bureau of Chicago.  [I’ve discussed the Reggie program earlier.  Please see https://susanjustwrites.com/2015/08/07/the-summer-of-69/%5D

As a Reggie, my goal was to achieve law reform for the poor, and I began to focus on my role as a lawyer working on behalf of poor women and men in Chicago. 

So, after a month or two as a Reggie, I conceived the idea of challenging the Illinois abortion law, which clearly had its most profound effect on poor and minority women.  My supervisor approved of my working on this issue, and I was soon allied with another woman lawyer (at the ACLU in Chicago), who became my co-counsel and lifelong friend.  [I’m currently engaged in a writing project focused on this lawsuit.]

After months of hard work, we filed our lawsuit with the U.S. district court in Chicago on February 20, 1970, and I left the next day for my eagerly awaited respite from work, my trip to Acapulco and Mexico City.

In lieu of traveling with a close friend or relative, I set off on my own, but I’d arranged to spend part of my time with another single woman who was also traveling on her own.  I didn’t know her very well, but she seemed sympatica and was knowledgeable about traveling in Mexico.  I’ll call her Sandy.

My first stop was Acapulco and a bargain-priced hotel located near some luxurious hotels.  Sandy, who’d chosen this hotel, arrived shortly after I did and assured me that we could safely melt into the crowd sunning themselves around a pool at one of the other hotels.  (Our place had only a small, mostly unused pool.)  So we probably violated all sorts of rules when we made our way to a crowded luxury-hotel pool, filled with the cool young people of that era, and lounged there, undisturbed, delighted to have escaped the frigid Chicago winter.

I immediately fell in love with Mexico.  Acapulco turned out to be a beautiful spot, exciting and still relatively unspoiled by American tourists.

After soaking up the sun and the nighttime scene in Acapulco for a few days, Sandy and I moved on to a large middle-priced hotel in a great location in Mexico City.  Sandy had taken up with a young man she’d met in Acapulco, and although I occasionally paired up with another young man, making up a foursome, once Sandy and I were in Mexico City I decided to go off on my own most of the time.  So I proceeded to roam parts of the city I wanted to explore, feeling quite safe wherever I went.  I impulsively purchased a ticket for the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico and ecstatically viewed a stunning dance performance filled with music and dances reflecting many regions of Mexico, some incorporating the traditions of its indigenous peoples.  And I made a memorable visit to the National Museum of Anthropology.

Before leaving Mexico, I wanted to see some of the other exciting locations described in my guidebook, and I signed up for a small private tour whose guide would pick me up at my hotel one morning and drop me off there at the end of the day.

So early one morning, I headed to the hotel lobby.  Soon a large black car arrived, driven by a pleasant young man who spoke excellent English, and I climbed inside, joining a few other tourists who were taking the same tour. 

The driver took us first to Teotihuacan, about an hour north of Mexico City, where we saw its astonishing pyramids.  I energetically climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, feeling immersed in pre-Columbian Mexico.  (Teotihuacan dates back as long as 1000 years before the arrival of the Aztecs, and the pyramid I climbed may have been built in the 4th century.)  Seeing the view from the top was exhilarating!

We proceeded to make two other stops:  the charming town of Cuernavaca and the town of Taxco, for centuries a center of silver production.  The people who lived in Taxco mined silver long before the Spanish arrived, using it for Aztec ceremonies as well as jewelry. 

I climbed the steps of Taxco’s 18th-century church, the Church of Santa Prisca, and devoured a tostada, purchased at a nearby restaurant, feasting on the tostada along with the gorgeous view from the top of those steps.  The memory of that indescribably delicious tostada, and the view, has never left me.  After choosing a couple of silver pins at a small jewelry shop (I still cherish one in the shape of the Aztec calendar stone), I reluctantly climbed back into the black car for our return trip to Mexico City, knowing that this ride meant the end of my glorious trip.

En route, I discovered that I was seated with a friendly middle-aged couple who announced that they hailed from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.  Yes, Yellowknife.  I’d honestly never heard of it before.  I later learned that it was the capital of the Northwest Territories, located on the north shore of the Great Slave Lake.  And it’s famed for its frigid weather.  The average winter temperature is about 30 degrees below zero, and it’s rarely above 40-below.  More than half of each year, deep snow covers the ground.

When this couple learned that I was single, they immediately began to promote Yellowknife, even though I’m sure that they themselves had happily escaped its astonishingly frigid temperatures.

Both husband and wife, sharing a mindset typical of 1970, jumped to the conclusion that I wanted nothing more out of life than to find a husband.  “Come to Yellowknife,” they implored, clearly eager to add to their ranks.  “You’ll find a husband as soon as you arrive.”  (Yellowknife apparently had an overabundance of marriageable men.)

I admit that I had trouble keeping a straight face.  But I immediately assured them that I wasn’t looking for a husband.  I had a fulfilling career and didn’t intend to move anywhere in search of a partner.  I hope I avoided being rude, never adding that, even if I did decide to move, it certainly wouldn’t be to a place like Yellowknife. 

If anything, I thought to myself, I’d move to an exciting new city and definitely somewhere warmer, not colder, than Chicago.

As it turned out, my trip to Mexico—a country loaded with brilliant sunshine and unlimited quantities of breathtakingly colorful flowers—actually did make me think about moving somewhere warmer.  When I returned to Chicago, I began to focus on a possible move, most likely to California.  (My earlier plan to move to DC had ended with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.)   During my Reggie training, I’d met the director of a legal services program, located at UCLA law school, who’d expressed interest in hiring me to work for him at the end of my Reggie year in Chicago. 

What exactly propelled me to move? 

I’d been growing increasingly dissatisfied with my life in Chicago for a number of reasons. Aside from my job, which I found very meaningful, much too much about the city no longer charmed me. For one thing, I hated the long cold gray winters. The political scene, dominated by a benevolent dictator, depressed me. Repeated visits to the Art Institute no longer left me giddy. And I found the social scene sadly lacking. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t any male companionship. I’d been dating a number of young men. But none of them had struck a spark. So, in the absence of any compelling reason to stay in the city, I began considering my options.

Then there was a blizzard in Chicago on April 1st.  Using a popular term of the day, I told friends that it “radicalized” me and led me to think seriously about moving to California.   [Please see “A Snowy April 1st,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2018/05/%5D

I traveled in May to San Francisco and LA, both for job interviews and for a glimpse into the sort of life I’d have if I moved to one of those fabulous cities. The prospect of that life struck me as quite appealing and at least worth a try.

By June, I decided to give up the lease on my Chicago apartment, sell most of my furniture, and make plans to fly to LA in late August, where I would take that job at UCLA.

I’ve described elsewhere what happened once I landed in LA.  [Please see, e.g., “Another love story,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2021/05/24/another-love-story/ and https://susanjustwrites.com/2021/05/26/another-love-story-2/%5D

But here’s my belated response to that couple from Yellowknife:  I’m sorry I disappointed you by not adding to your frostbitten population.  I think you probably meant well, but your assumption that I would even consider moving to your hometown–to find a husband–was actually offensive.  

When we met, I was in no way desperately searching for a husband.  Thankfully, I never was.  I decided a few months later to leave Chicago for LA, not knowing how my life there would turn out.  But I never contemplated for even one brief moment moving somewhere like Yellowknife.

Instead, I headed elsewhere, aiming to find—and finding–a glorious future filled with warmth and many, many sunny days ahead.

The Pink Lady

When I was growing up, my mother’s cocktail of choice was a “pink lady.” Whenever our family went out for dinner (and those dinners-out didn’t happen often), she’d order a frothy and very rosy-hued “pink lady” while Daddy chose an “old-fashioned.”

My parents weren’t everyday drinkers. Au contraire. My mother would sometimes speak disparagingly of those who indulged overmuch in alcoholic beverages, referring to them as “shikkers.” Although Daddy may have had an occasional drink at home after a difficult day at work (probably bourbon or another kind of whiskey), Mom never did. She reserved her pursuit of alcohol for our occasional dinners-out.

One dinner spot we favored was the Fireside Restaurant in Lincolnwood, Illinois, not far from our apartment on the Far North Side of Chicago. (Ironically, the restaurant was itself destroyed by fire–reputedly by mob-related arson–a few years later.) Another place we patronized was Phil Smidt’s (which everyone pronounced like “Schmidt’s”), located just over the Indiana border.

Why did we travel to Indiana for dinner when good food was undoubtedly available to us much closer to home? And long before an interstate highway connected Chicago to Northern Indiana? I remember a prolonged and very slow trip on surface streets and maybe a small highway or two whenever we headed to Phil Smidt’s.

Perhaps we wound up there because the restaurant was a perennial favorite among the people my parents knew. Or perhaps because my father actually enjoyed driving. Yes, Daddy liked getting behind the wheel in those long-ago days before everyone had a car and the roads weren’t jam-packed with other drivers. Daddy got a kick out of driving us in every direction from our home on Sunday afternoons, when traffic was especially light. But I also remember his frustration with drivers who didn’t seem to know where they were going. He referred to them as “farmers,” implying that they were wide-eyed rural types unaccustomed to city driving.

Perhaps we headed to Indiana because my parents were overly enthusiastic about the fare offered at Phil Smidt’s. As I recall, the place was famous for fried perch and fried chicken. I usually opted for the fried chicken. (At the Fireside Restaurant, my first choice was French-fried shrimp. Dinners-out seemed to involve a lot of fried food back then, and oh, my poor arteries.)

If we were celebrating a special event, like my mother’s birthday or Mother’s Day, Mom would wear a corsage. I’ve never been especially fond of corsages, which were de rigueur during my high school prom-going days. Boys would bring their dates a corsage, and girls were expected to ooh and aah over them. But I always thought corsages were a highly artificial way to display fresh flowers, and I rejected them whenever I had a choice. I’m glad social norms have evolved to diminish the wearing of corsages like those women and girls formerly felt compelled to wear.

Mom, however, always seemed pleased to wear the corsage Daddy gave her. Her favorite flower was the gardenia, and its strong scent undoubtedly wafted its way toward her elegantly shaped nose whenever he pinned one on her dress.

The “pink lady” cocktail, which incorporates gin as its basic ingredient, first appeared early in the 20th century. Some speculate that its name was inspired by a 1911 Broadway musical whose name and whose star were both called “The Pink Lady.”   It may have become popular during Prohibition, when the gin available was so dreadful that people added flavors like grenadine to obscure its bad taste.

The cocktail evolved into a number of different varieties over the years. Mom’s frothy version, around since the 1920s, adds sweet cream to the usual recipe of gin, grenadine (which provides flavoring and the pink color), and egg white.

Apparently (and not surprisingly), the drink eventually acquired a “feminine” image, both because of its name and because its sweet and creamy content wasn’t viewed as “masculine” enough in the eyes of male critics. One bartender also speculated that the non-threatening appearance of the “pink lady” probably was a major reason why it appealed to women who had limited experience with alcohol.

No doubt Mom was one of those women.

The very name of the cocktail, the “pink lady,” fit Mom to a T. She was absolutely determined to be a “lady” in every way and to instill “lady-like” behavior in her two daughters. I was frequently admonished to repress my most rambunctious ways by being told I wasn’t being lady-like. And when I had two daughters of my own, decades later, despite my strong opposition she still repeated the same admonition. She found it hard to shift gears and approve of her granddaughters’ behaving in what she viewed as a non-lady-like way. Although her basic sweetness, like that of her favorite drink, predominated in our relationship, we did differ on issues like that one.

The appellation of “pink lady” fit Mom in another way as well. She was a redhead whose fair skin would easily flush, lending a pink hue to her appearance. Whenever she was agitated (sometimes because my sister or I provoked her)…or whenever she excitedly took pride in one of our accomplishments…and assuredly whenever she was out in the sun too long, she literally turned pink.

So here’s to you, Pink Lady. In my memory, you’ll always resemble the very pink and very sweet cocktail you preferred.

Watching the movie “Z”: A tale of two Hoffmans

January 1st marks an unusual anniversary for me.

On January 1, 1970, I watched the movie “Z”—a film I consider a powerful and enduring classic—under somewhat remarkable circumstances.

The 1969 film was directed by Costa-Gavras, a Greek-born filmmaker who lived in Paris. He based it on a book written in 1966 by Vassilis Vassilikos, who, using official documents, described the 1963 death of a Greek politician, Grigoris Lambrakis.

Lambrakis, an MD who taught at the medical school in Athens, was a leading pacifist and left-wing member of the Greek parliament. Shortly after speaking at an antiwar meeting in Thessaloniki, he was struck on the head by a club wielded by two far-right extremists. He later died of his injuries.

After his death, graffiti with the letter “Z” began to appear in Greek cities. Representing the growing protest against the right-wing government, it stood for the first letter of the Greek word, “Zi,” which means “he lives.”

In a filmed interview in 2009, Costa-Gavras discussed the making of “Z.” (You can watch this interview, as I did, on a DVD of “Z.”)

His focus was clear: political oppression. His cast: Yves Montand as Lambrakis, Irene Pappas as his wife, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the prosecutor who slowly realizes what happened and is ultimately driven to seek justice against the wrongdoers.

In the film, a key scene takes place in front of the venue where Lambrakis is scheduled to give his speech. Many supporters have gathered to welcome him, but others in the crowd are demonstrators opposed to him and what he stands for. The local police are seen clubbing a few of the demonstrators. But it’s clear that the demonstrators are the bad guys–street toughs paid off by those in power to harm Lambrakis.

So it’s not the police who represent oppression here. Rather, it’s the demonstrators, one of whom strikes Lambrakis in the head. He’s stunned but goes ahead to give his speech. When leaving the venue, he’s struck once again, causing him to die later in the film.

Before he’s struck, Lambrakis asks, “Why do the ideas we stand for incite such violence?” Costa-Gavras’s answer: It’s all about power. Those in power will do anything to stay in power, and here that included the assassination of a political opponent.

Post-1963, Greek politics remained chaotic, and a 1967 coup by the military led to their control of the Greek government until their regime finally collapsed and democratic government was essentially restored in 1973.

I first saw “Z” at the Cinema movie theater in Chicago on New Year’s Day 1970.   The Cinema was an art-film theater located on Chicago Avenue near Michigan Avenue, and I saw many “art flicks” there when I was younger.  It’s long-gone, demolished and replaced by a high-rise building that includes a Neiman Marcus store.

I was a young lawyer working in an office that brought test cases on behalf of the poor.  I’d recently completed a clerkship with Judge Julius J. Hoffman, the judge who presided over “the Chicago 7 trial” (also called “the Chicago conspiracy trial”) that got underway in the fall of 1969 and was still ongoing in early 1970.  The trial stemmed from the turmoil engulfing the Democratic convention held in Chicago in 1968. (Happily, I never had to work on that trial. My clerkship was ending, and my co-clerk was assigned to that task.)

[FYI: I will discuss my tenure with Judge Hoffman in an upcoming post.]

I read about “Z” in Roger Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times in late December. Ebert was an unusually young and thoughtful movie critic, close to my own age, and I was a great fan of his reviews. This review, which called “Z” the best film of 1969, highlighted the political backdrop of corruption, and I was eager to see it.  I’d just said goodbye to a man I’d been dating—he was a bit too boring to abide any longer—and I set out on a cold and gray New Year’s Day to see the movie by myself. (As luck would have it, I met my adored and never-boring husband when I moved to sunny California a few months later.)

The film more than lived up to my expectations.  But what was especially striking about being in the audience that day was that, in the crowd waiting to enter the theater, was one of the “Chicago 7” defendants, Abbie Hoffman (no relation to Judge Hoffman).  In that era, Abbie Hoffman was a major figure in the protest movement opposing the government. All seven of the Chicago defendants were protesters indicted by “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s administration.

I didn’t agree with everything that Abbie Hoffman and his cohorts stood for, and I didn’t endorse their misconduct during the trial itself.  But I was opposed to the Vietnam War, sympathetic to other elements of the protest movement, and horrified later that year by events like the killings at Kent State.

As I watched “Z,” knowing that Abbie Hoffman was watching it at the very same time, I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels with Chicago.  Fortunately, our government (unlike the powerful right wing in Greece) didn’t promote assassination.

But there were parallels.  The attitude of local officials, including Mayor Richard J. Daley, toward the protesters who came to Chicago led to an overreaction by the Chicago police. Their violent conduct toward the protesters became obvious to everyone watching TV coverage of the Democratic convention. The U.S. Justice Department went on to indict Abbie Hoffman and the other defendants on charges brought under a law many viewed as unconstitutional.

But there was one sharp contrast between Chicago and Greece: the prosecutors.

I’d fallen halfway in love with Jean-Louis Trintignant when he starred in “A Man and a Woman,” a 1967 French film. Now, in “Z,” he portrayed a fair-minded prosecutor who becomes determined to hold the powerful to account. And he succeeds in indicting not only the two toughs who committed the murder but also the high-ranking military officers who supported them.

(The real-life prosecutor, Christos Sartzetakis, was twice arrested and imprisoned but triumphed after democracy was restored and was elected by the Greek parliament to serve as the country’s president from 1985 to 1990.)

By contrast, the prosecutors representing the Nixon administration in Chicago were politically ambitious and far from fair-minded. They were determined to convict the seven defendants, including Abbie Hoffman, whose protests during the convention had been largely peaceful. They secured as the trial judge a man whose usual bent was to rule in favor of the federal prosecutors who appeared before him, and he treated this trial like any other.

No one was killed in Chicago. And although the trial defendants were convicted, they were convicted only of contempt, and these convictions were mostly reversed by other courts. But the parallels between what transpired in Chicago and the story told in “Z” remain.

46 years later, “Z” is still a powerful film. And January 1, 1970, endures in my memory as a day that underscored the ugliness of political oppression both in Greece and in my own country.

Celebrating Love in the City of Light

Along with the rest of the civilized world, I was horrified to learn of the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on November 13th. They were followed by an equally–perhaps even more–disturbing attack in San Bernardino.

Both of these have shaken me. San Bernardino? Because it hit so close to home.

Paris? Because Paris has a special place in my heart.

Special indeed. I celebrated my first, tenth, and 26th wedding anniversaries in Paris.

Celebrating anniversaries in Paris…. Romantic, n’est-ce pas?  But here’s what’s more important: Those anniversaries were filled with the kind of love that lasts even longer than spine-tingling heart-pounding romance.

On our first anniversary, Herb and I were in Paris on our very first trip to Europe. We made plans to dine with some old friends (including one of Herb’s Harvard roommates) who were living in Geneva and drove into Paris to see us.  We didn’t tell them it was our anniversary till we visited them in Geneva several days later. (I think Herb didn’t want them to treat us to dinner.)

So on our anniversary we dined at a typical French restaurant near our hotel on the Boulevard Saint-Germain instead of a pricey and far more elegant one. When we finally confided that we’d spent our first wedding anniversary with them, Herb’s roommate said, “You should have told us! We could have blown our wad and gone to the Tour d’Argent.”

But I hadn’t minded our modest dinner on the Left Bank. Just being with Herb, along with our friends, was more than enough. The evening had been filled with laughter and love. And there was plenty of time for romance later when we were alone.

Our tenth anniversary was very different. Herb was on a sabbatical from the university in Chicago where he taught math.  During our month in Paris, Herb spent most days at the University of Paris, where he communed with other mathematicians while I shepherded our two small daughters (ages 4 and 7) around the city.

We ate dinner together every night, and our anniversary dinner was no exception. We dined with our daughters at a small and inexpensive bistro on the Left Bank, very near our apartment in the 5th arrondisement. Our modest apartment was on the Rue Tournefort, one street over from the better-known Rue Mouffetard, and the area, just off the Place de la Contrescarpe, was filled with bistros like this one.

We were preoccupied with our daughters, making sure we ordered food they would cheerfully eat (no fancy French sauces for them!), and reprimanding them if their behavior became too rambunctious. So as an anniversary dinner, it wasn’t glamorous, and it certainly wasn’t romantic. But the love all of us felt for each other turned the evening into a memorable one I’ll never forget.

Our 26th anniversary was even better. By this time, our daughters were no longer children, and our older daughter, Meredith, was spending all year in Paris on a graduate fellowship at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Herb and I, along with our younger daughter, Leslie, traveled to Paris to meet Meredith and spend some time there, after which the four of us traveled together in France for another ten days.

Our anniversary fell on our third day in Paris, and Herb asked me to choose a place for dinner. I picked a small restaurant on the Ile St.-Louis, one of my favorite places in all of Paris.

We walked there from our Left Bank hotel, strolling along the Seine, crossing the bridge that leads to Notre-Dame, then crossing the bridge to the Ile. The weather was sunny and warm, and we laughed and chatted as we walked.

We arrived on the island and enjoyed perusing menus posted outside the restaurants on the Rue St.-Louis-en-Ile as we approached our destination. Then we shared a delightful dinner at the restaurant I’d chosen, where our charming waiter took photos of us laughing and eating and reveling in just being together.  After dinner, we strolled to Berthillon, famed for its glaces and their unique flavors, and we devoured our ice cream on the spot. That evening was one of the most blissful I’ve ever spent.

I’ve been to Paris on five other trips (I wrote about one of them in a blog post last November, “Down and Hot in Paris and London”). I recently returned for the eighth time, and Paris was just as beautiful as I remembered.

But Paris without Herb? It’s never been quite the same.

When Herb died, he left me with years of memories filled with the extraordinary love and happiness we shared.  The three anniversaries we celebrated in Paris are at the top of my list.

 

 

 

Our Trip West: A Memoir

One summer during the 1950s, the thing I cared about most was our family’s long-anticipated “Trip West,” the road trip we’d mapped out for the last two weeks of summer.

Departing from our apartment in Chicago one hot August morning, we crossed the Mississippi River and entered Iowa, the first state west of Illinois. As our eyes drank in the not-yet-boring sameness of the Iowa cornfields, my mother suddenly had an urgent question. Where was the garment bag, filled with four brand-new outfits, that she’d left hanging on the bedroom door? She didn’t remember putting it in the car.

Sure enough, when we stopped for the night, the garment bag was nowhere to be found. My parents, in their haste to leave, had forgotten to take Mom’s bag. The result? Mom had one dress to wear for the entire two-week trip.

Imagine. Two weeks in August in one brown-and-white hound’s-tooth-checked rayon dress. We scoured store racks from Sioux City to Sioux Falls searching for another summer dress for Mom. But by the last two weeks of August, even the least trendy stores in the least trendy parts of America had NO SUMMER DRESSES left.

By Salt Lake City, Mom was resigned to one more week of the hound’s-tooth-checked number and finally stopped looking. We were all happy to end the search, enthusiastically thanking Providence for Mom’s underactive sweat glands.

Our trip included adventures in the Badlands, the Black Hills, and Yellowstone National Park. But the highlight for me happened when we arrived at the town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The town was not yet the “in” resort it has since become, but its mountains were already attracting skiers. And that summer I rode the Snow King Mountain chair-lift 4,000 feet to the top. By myself.

Driving through Jackson Hole, we’d noticed a sign promoting the chair-lift ride to the top of Snow King Mountain. Daddy stopped the car and got out to take a look. The rest of us followed, watching chairs whizzing up the mountain from where we stood at the bottom.

Somehow our signals got crossed because I hopped on one of the chairs thinking that Daddy was going to hop on the very next one. As I blithely began to go up the mountain, I suddenly heard loud voices. I turned around to see my parents, still at the bottom of the mountain, waving their arms and shouting. I couldn’t make out what they were shouting, but I got the idea: Daddy had decided not to ride the chair lift after all, and I’d made a big mistake to hop on when I did.

I faced forward again, realizing that it was too late to get off. The chair was moving fast, and if I tried to dismount, disaster might ensue. So I sat back and feasted my eyes on the spectacular scenery. Chicago never looked like this.

When I reached the top of the mountain, I was startled by a man who emerged from a small structure, took my photo, then pulled me off the still-moving chair. Shouting “YOUR MOTHER WANTS TO TALK TO YOU,” he thrust a telephone receiver into my hand. Calling from the bottom of the mountain, my mother frantically demanded to know if I was all right. After assuring her that I was fine, I hung up, and the top-of-the-mountain man helped me mount a chair going downhill.

As I descended, I realized how very high I’d climbed. I could see all the way down the mountain to the tiny town below, and it finally sunk in just how far I could fall if I slipped out of the chair. Luckily, the rest of the ride went smoothly.

When I landed safely at the bottom of the mountain, my parents rushed to greet me, my mother smothering me with kisses. I wondered why they’d been so worried. Now, a mother (and grandmother) myself, I no longer wonder. Seeing one of my young children whisked up a 7,808-foot mountain, all alone, I would have panicked too.

With the Jackson Hole episode behind us, our family explored Colorado and Utah before heading home. By the time we got to North Platte, Nebraska, we were sure our Western adventures were over. But we were wrong.

We dined at a local steakhouse, figuring on an uneventful walk back to our motel. But when we left the steakhouse, the air was swarming with hundreds of enormous locusts. Unaccustomed to seeing any insect larger than a horsefly, we were shocked to see hordes of gigantic bugs zooming through the air.

We ducked and began running, collapsing in the bug-free atmosphere of our motel room. But it was too early to proclaim victory over the insect world. As Mom began to undress (yes, the brown-and-white hound’s-tooth-checked number), a locust emerged from the vicinity of her bra and began to fly around the room. We all screamed till Daddy did what was expected of 1950s-era Daddies and got rid of the thing. It took us a while to settle down to sleep that night.

We returned to Chicago and our routine existence. But the memories of our Trip West never faded. A reminder arrived in our mailbox a few weeks later: the photo of me, in the chair-lift, at the top of Snow King Mountain.

Among my favorite memories are those of my travels, starting with those I took with my parents so long ago. I’ve gone on to travel to many parts of the world, and I plan to keep on going. Inside me is a little girl on a chair-lift, eager to be transported up the mountain one more time.

The Demise of the Granada

When they tore down the Granada movie theater, a large chunk of me crumbled with it.

As the wreckers began dismantling the magnificent old movie palace on Chicago’s Far North Side, other moviegoers must have felt the same sense of loss.  For those of us who came of age in the ’50s and ’60s, it was a wrenching reminder of the idyllic world we inhabited back then.

I grew up at the Nortown Theater, two or three miles west of the Granada.  It was the theater we could walk to, and nearly every Saturday afternoon we made our way to the Nortown to sit beneath its dark-sky ceiling filled with scores of glittering stars, our eyes glued to the larger-than-life stars who glittered on the screen.

Saturday afternoons at the Nortown expanded my otherwise limited horizons.  I learned about the Wild West from John Wayne, criminal pursuits from Bogart and Mitchum, romance from Taylor, Monroe, and Bacall, song and dance from Garland, Kelly, and Astaire.  But when our parents finally consented to our taking the Devon Avenue bus alone, a whole new world opened up:  the world of the Granada Theater.

Life became more complicated on the screen of the Granada.  At one remarkable double-feature in 1956, I encountered both the happiness and the sorrow of a woman’s search for love.  Katharine Hepburn’s spunky heroine, in love with a very-married Rossano Brazzi in “Summertime,” and Jennifer Jones’s strong woman doctor, in love with war journalist William Holden in “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” bravely returned to their careers when their doomed love affairs ended.  An early portent of women’s liberation?  Judging from the masses of wet Kleenex we produced, I doubt it.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” introduced me to the heart-pounding suspense stirred up by Hitchcock.  I watched “Anastasia” aware of the firestorm Ingrid Bergman’s scandalous love affair had ignited in Hollywood.   And a powerful statement about the criminal justice system, “12 Angry Men,” forced me to think about the possibility of injustice in America and whether I might someday do something about it.

As I grew older, the Granada became a place to go on dates.  Teenaged boys in that era liked taking dates to movies, where their eager sweaty hands would reach out in the dark in hopes of touching something soft, warm, and female.  They had limited success, at least with me.  My date and I once watched a shockingly bad movie with Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood, “The Burning Hills.”  It was so awful that we laughed too hard to do anything else.

In the ’60s, I rarely patronized the Granada.  I left Chicago for college and grad school, and when I returned, I lived in another part of the city.  On my last visit, just before leaving Chicago once again in 1970, the theater seemed rundown and much dirtier than I remembered.  Was the Granada on the skids?

Five years later, I returned to Chicago with a husband and a baby.  Living in a suburb north of the Granada, we passed it now and then, but my busy new life left no time to seek out old haunts.  Then one day it suddenly closed.  No warning, no notice announced in the newspapers, allowed its former patrons one last chance to see it.  The doors were locked, and entry barred.

Repeated efforts to save the Granada failed, and the wrecking ball finally arrived.  As I drove by the theater on my way to teach a law-school class, I saw the wall behind the screen fall to pieces and the two-story terra cotta columns crash to the floor.  The balcony seats were exposed to view, then destroyed.  At the end, a sodden ugly mass of tangled beams and columns, entwined with an array of aging construction materials, became a hideous pile awaiting disposal.

An era had ended.  TV, VCRs, and the proliferation of movie theaters in the suburbs all played their part.  Most of the opulent movie palaces that once thrived in American cities had become dinosaurs.  And so, in 1990, the Granada died.

But like the best of the movies that appeared on its screen for more than 50 wonderful years, the memories it created have never died.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.

 

In Praise of San Francisco’s Weather

I moved to San Francisco eight years ago, and there’s much about the city that I truly love:  the breathtaking vistas, the natural beauty surrounding the city, the warmth of its inhabitants, and the rich assortment of parks, museums, theaters, concert halls, movie houses, restaurants, and shops.

There’s one more thing:  the weather.

I revel in the weather I’ve encountered in San Francisco.  After decades of living in a cold climate (mostly in Chicago), dealing with snow and ice for much of the year and heat and humidity for much of the rest, I relish the sunshine and cool breezes that San Francisco offers year-round.  People who’ve never lived in a cold climate can’t begin to imagine how difficult life there can be.  On many cold mornings I found myself crossing the bridge over the Chicago River, headed from the commuter train station to my office, snow and sleet blowing in my face.  No matter how many warm layers of clothing I’d wrap around my body, my face was largely exposed, bearing the brunt of the cold wind that persisted in hurling snow in my direction.

If you’ve never confronted them, let me assure you that icy sidewalks and streets are extremely treacherous.  Many of those attempting to walk on icy sidewalks have slipped and fallen, breaking bones and suffering concussions.  Driving on icy streets is equally hazardous, resulting in countless collisions.  Luckily, snow and ice are non-existent in San Francisco, relieving us of the challenges and pitfalls of negotiating on ice both on foot and in a vehicle.  Even rainy days don’t bother me, and locals who complain about the occasional chilly weather strike me as almost comically unaware of the reality faced by Americans in almost every other region of the county.

Unless you love hot weather and can’t wait to hit the beach, summers in San Francisco are delightful.  The temperature almost never rises above 80 degrees, and humidity barely reaches a noticeable level.  The contrast with places like Chicago, Boston, and New York is striking.  On recent trips to those cities, I encountered uncomfortably high humidity, thunderstorms, and temperatures in the 90s.  Extreme heat and humidity has plagued much of the nation this summer, but here in San Francisco, we’ve been as cool as cukes.

Air conditioning?  In San Francisco, we almost never need it, while most other regions of the country, including many parts of California, rely on air conditioning to survive.  I remember some vivid examples.  On one sweltering summer day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my husband and mother joined me at Ann Arbor’s famed outdoor art festival.  I was surveying the artwork when l glanced at my mother’s face.  It was bright red. The thermometer on a nearby building read 99 degrees, and the humidity felt just as high.  We quickly abandoned the art festival and fled to our air-conditioned apartment.  On a recent trip to Boston, I was barely able to drag myself from the Harvard Square “T” to my daughter’s air-conditioned Cambridge apartment just a few blocks away, when both the temperature and the humidity hit 90-plus.  And don’t get me started on places like Arizona and Texas.

Here in San Francisco we save the financial cost of air conditioning, not to mention any feelings of guilt arising from  its demand on our energy resources.  And we don’t have to suffer the physical jolt of going from intense heat to intense cold every time we enter a super-air-conditioned building.

Our weather has another stellar feature.  Because San Franciscans can revel in sunshine and moderate temperatures all year long, we can spend much more time outdoors than most other Americans.  We’re not confined to exercising in sterile gray-walled fitness centers.  We have much better options.  I wake up every day almost certain that I’ll be able to take a walk, hike, or bike ride before the sun sets.

I don’t even mind the San Francisco fog that occasionally envelops the city.  Au contraire.  I think it creates a kind of magical aura over the city.  So long you remember to carry a light jacket, and drivers are careful maneuvering their vehicles in the fog, it really doesn’t have much of a downside.  Besides, if you want to escape the fog, you need travel only a short distance from the city in any direction.  The microclimates surrounding us are almost always fog-free.

Of course, life in San Francisco has its flaws.  For one thing, housing is more expensive than that in other cities (with the possible exception of NYC).  Rents are high, and on the rise as the city’s economy gets better and better, while buying a house in the most desirable neighborhoods has become more costly than ever.  And San Franciscans are constantly under the shadow of “The Big One.”  Perched as we are on the Pacific Rim, the threat of a major earthquake never really goes away.

But those of us who live here are willing to take those negatives along with all the positive features of life in the city.  Count me in.  I’m genuinely happy in my new hometown and especially delighted with its weather.  And when I recently came across the following story, reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle of July 15, 1937, I realized that my reaction to the city’s weather is very much like that of a famous writer’s over 75 years ago.

The Chronicle reported:

Ernest Hemingway arrived in San Francisco yesterday ‘to get cool.’ On his first visit to [the city], he gulped in a few cubic yards of fog shortly after stepping from a …plane at [the airport] and sighed: ‘Say, this is great. After frying in New York, stewing down in Florida and sweltering in Los Angeles, this is something….  I can’t for the life of me see why anybody would ever move out of San Francisco, particularly in the summertime.’

Hey, Papa, when it comes to weather, we’re on the same page!

High Heels Are Killers

by Susan Alexander

I’ve long maintained that high heels are killers.  I never used that term literally, of course.  I merely viewed high-heeled shoes as distinctly uncomfortable and an outrageous concession to the dictates of fashion that can lead to both pain and permanent damage to a woman’s body.

Now, however, high heels have proved to be actual killers.  The Associated Press recently reported that two women were killed in Riverside, California, when a train shoved their car into them as they struggled in high heels to get away.  The car got stuck on the train tracks when the driver tried to make a U-turn.  The women emerged from the Honda and attempted to flee as a train approached.  A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly” as they tried to run on the gravel surrounding the train tracks.  The women were 18 and 23 years old.

Like those two women, I was sucked into wearing high heels when I was a teenager.  It was de rigueur for girls at my high school to seek out the trendy shoe stores on State Street in downtown Chicago and purchase whatever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford.  On my first visit to such a store, I was entranced by the three-inch-heeled numbers that pushed my toes into a too-narrow space and revealed them in what I thought was a highly provocative position.  If feet can have cleavage, those shoes gave mine cleavage.

Never mind that my feet were incased in a vise-like grip.  Never mind that I walked unsteadily on the stilts beneath my soles.  And never mind that my whole body was pitched forward in an ungainly manner as I propelled myself down the store’s aisle toward the mirror on the wall.  I liked the way my legs looked in those shoes, and I had just enough baby-sitting money to pay for them.  Now I could stride pridefully to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear just like all the other girls’.

That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I had made.  I was stranded in a distant location with no ride home in the offing, and I began walking to the nearest bus stop.  After a few steps, it was clear that my shoes were killers.  I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the pain became so great that I ultimately removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.

After that painful lesson, I abandoned my high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing more “sensible” lower heels.   Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively in lower heels, but I managed to secure male attention nevertheless.  Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully fended off the back pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters have suffered in spades.

In recent years, I’ve noticed the trend toward even higher heels, and I grieve for the young women who buy into the mindset that they must follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy.”  All around me, I see women wearing  stilettos that force them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago.  TV and movies have surely fostered this trend (witness “Sex and the City”).

When I recently sat on the stage of Zellerbach Hall at the Berkeley commencement for mathematics students, I was astonished that most of the women hobbled across the stage to receive their diplomas in three- and four-inch-high sandals.  I was terrified that these super-smart math students would trip and fall before they could grasp the document their mighty brain-power had achieved.  (Fortunately, none of them did, but I could imagine the pain that accompanied the joy of receiving their degrees.)

The deaths in Riverside demonstrate an even more dramatic problem.  When women need to flee a dangerous situation, high heels surely handicap their ability to escape.  How many other needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?

When we celebrate the Fourth of July, I urge the women of America to proclaim their independence from high-heeled shoes.  If you’re currently wearing painful footwear, bravely toss those shoes and shod yourself in comfy ones.  Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.

[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]